I recently read Matthew Harffy’s excellent book The Serpent Sword – the first in his Bernicia Chronicles series. Below, I ask Matthew about his writing techniques, his journey from first-time indie author to here, and his new book, Warrior of Woden.
Q1: Hi Matthew. Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. When I first read The Serpent Sword, it struck me how well put together the plot, structure, and characters were and how they worked in unison to pull the reader in. To what extent was it all planned in advance, or do you let your stories grow organically as you’re writing them?
Thank you for inviting me, Andrew, and thank you for the interest in my writing.
The Serpent Sword is slightly unusual as, unlike the other books in the series, it was written over several years and therefore was subject to more organic change than the other novels. I think the short answer is that I plan the plot and structure, but I also allow the writing to pull the story in unexpected directions.
I try to break down the book into sections, chapters and scenes. I give these a couple of lines of description each, and every chapter or scene must drive the plot forward. I write each novel from beginning to end in chronological order and I don’t go back and rework sections until I’ve finished the first draft. I think this too can make the book more dynamic, as I approach each section asking myself the question “what is it the reader wants to know next?”. And if I start to get bored, I decide I need some action or a twist to liven things up!
As I reach each chapter, things may well have changed from my original plan. If that’s the case, I adjust what needs to happen in the scene and forge ahead.
An example of how the writing of The Serpent Sword changed over time is that when writing the first draft I had not made the connection between Octa, Hengist and the sword! The prologue was the last thing I wrote at the end of the second draft. Obviously, after the epiphany of who Hengist was and his involvement with Beobrand’s brother and the sword, Hrunting, I needed to go back through the manuscript making some additions and changes.
Another example of a change from the plan was that, in the first draft, the ending was very different to how it ended up in the final book. I won’t go into too much detail, as I don’t want to give away the ending for anyone who hasn’t read it, but suffice to say people survived in the first draft who ended up dead in the final version!
Q2: Your main character, Beobrand, has a lot of heroic qualities, but he also has a dark past and, at times, does and thinks things that might seem morally questionable. What was your reason for creating him this way?
Part of what I wanted to do with The Serpent Sword was to investigate why young men, when confronted with a breakdown of society, all too often allow themselves to be swept along, committing acts of horrific violence. You can see it every day in the news and throughout history it has always been thus; any time of conflict and young men will frequently step into the vacuum and become tormentors and abusers.
I wanted Beobrand to be confronted by such situations and to have to make a conscious decision to fight against his darker impulses. Of course, in every moment of history where there is collapse of order, not all men turn to violence, and I like the idea of a man who was prone to violence and capable of killing turning his back on cowardly acts and channelling his own strength to defend others. All good storytelling is based on conflict and the fact that Beobrand is conflicted internally adds an extra level of complexity and interest to the story.
A simple hero, who always does the right thing in every situation, is less compelling than a character who seems more real, flawed, and struggles with his decisions and mistakes.
Q3: In The Serpent Sword, you create a mystery to hook your readers from the first few pages. What other methods do you use to hook your readers and keep them turning the page?
As I mentioned in my answer to the first question, the prologue and the mystery hook didn’t exist until the very end of the writing process, but I realised it needed something to make the reader interested in the story from the beginning.
Once a reader has started a novel, the most important thing for a writer is to make them want to turn the page. The simplest way of doing this is to pose some sort of question, quandary or surprise at the end of each section. If the reader wants to know what happens next, they will turn the page. So at the end of a chapter you might have a messenger arriving, but you don’t explain who the messenger is or what messages he brings. Or you may end a scene with a character apparently about to die, not revealing what happens until the next chapter. This technique of using cliff-hangers and unanswered questions at the end of chapters and sections is the most powerful tool to create a page-turning experience.
Another method I use is to tell the story from different points of view. I know this is something that some people don’t like, but I think it keeps the story fresh to have it told from different perspectives and in different voices. This also allows you to show the rationale behind certain events, or to build tension by showing what is going to happen to the protagonist without his knowledge. So the reader is anticipating the coming action, even though the main character has no idea.
Q4: You do an incredible job of creating a story-world that feels authentic and true to the period, but how accurate are your stories in terms of the historical events and people they depict? Do you think historical fiction authors have a duty to stick to the facts, or do you think there should be some room for deviation?
Thank you! At the end of every novel I include a historical note where I explain which parts of the story are based on fact, which are purely fiction, and where I have twisted or stretched the known history to fit the plot.
The background of the series is the historical events described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and in the writings of the Venerable Bede, and I try to stick as closely to those events as possible. I also have a bookshelf full of books about the period that I have bought over the last seventeen years since I first started working on The Serpent Sword. From those books I have tried to gain an understanding of the time, and the life of the people and I do my best to present an authentic picture.
My motto is: authenticity over accuracy, and story over history.
I do not think a novelist has an obligation to present historical facts. I see my job as to entertain first and foremost and I think it is possible to get too bogged down in historical detail, which can lead to a less than optimal novel. When plotting, I am thinking of the story arc of the characters and the satisfaction of the reader rather than the history. The history serves as the canvas on which I paint the story.
Q5: What do you think have been the key factors behind your success as an author, and what did it take for you to get to where you are now?
This is a very tough question to answer. When thinking about it now, I asked myself “Am I really a success?” I suppose that partly answers the question. I am never satisfied and so I’m always striving for more.
I’ve worked hard to produce good quality stories and I’ve also put in a lot of effort into my presence on social media and the Internet. This really cannot be underestimated and any writer should start to build their platform as soon as they start writing, not waiting until they finish their book. I investigated a lot about how to build an ‘author platform’ from back in 2012 when I decided seriously to pick up The Serpent Sword. I made the decision that I would finish the book and seek to publish it, but I knew that in order to be a success I would need to have a presence online well in advance of publication.
So I created a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a webpage, blog and a mailing list.
I think people are too often passive, expecting readers to come to them, but in this modern world of self-publishing, the most difficult thing is to be noticed. So my advice to any writer would be to look at what other writers in the same genre as them are doing and try to emulate them. Create interesting blog content that will appeal to readers of the genre you’re writing in and don’t be shy about inviting writers you admire to guest post on your blog or to do an interview. It is a great way of attracting another author’s readership to see your books.
And never think of other writers as competition. This is the mistake of the insecure writer. We’ve all heard about writers leaving negative reviews against their competitors’ novels in an attempt to put them down. And it is even relatively commonplace to find writers leaving positive reviews against their own novels, under assumed names or fake accounts. In my opinion all of that is ridiculous and demeaning and frankly misses the point that within a genre there are many, many more readers than there ever will be good authors. And it takes an author a lot longer to write a novel that it does for a reader to read it and therefore, other authors should be our allies. There are enough readers to go around!
Q6: The Serpent Sword was originally self-published. Did you have a good experience of self-publishing and what lay behind your decision to switch to a traditional publisher?
I always planned to traditionally publish. I found an agent who signed a contract with me and he set about trying to sell The Serpent Sword to publishers while I wrote the sequel, The Cross and the Curse. However, initially The Serpent Sword was rejected by all the major publishers but I was not willing to give up and to believe that the book wasn’t good enough.
I did better at self-publishing than most self-published authors I know. Not all of them of course; some are doing extremely well. But I sold several thousand copies of the e-book in the first few months and inevitably, this gave my agent extra traction with publishers and he submitted The Serpent Sword to Aria, a new imprint of Head of Zeus. Aria is a digital first imprint and it took me a while to make the decision to go with them as I was quite happy to self-publish and, without knowing how successful the books would be, it looked like all I was doing was signing away a percentage of my sales. In the end, I took the gamble and this was mainly for the possible opportunities of greater distribution and sales of rights for things like audiobooks and translations. I decided that if I wanted to be a serious writer for the foreseeable future, I needed to expand my readership and going with a traditional publisher with a strong track record would be a way of doing that. So far, I am pleased with my decision.
You never really know what the future holds though, and I would have nothing against independent, self-publishing again in the future, which would make me a so-called hybrid author.
Q7: Tell us about your latest book, Warrior of Woden. Where is Beobrand now and what challenges does he face?
By the time we reach Warrior of Woden, book five and the latest novel in the Bernicia Chronicles series, Beobrand’s life has been filled with excitement, intrigue and more than its share of tragedy. Nine years have gone by since The Serpent Sword and, at only twenty-six, Beobrand has long since transformed from a naive farm boy into a ruthless warlord. He has stood in shieldwalls, slaying the enemies of his king and been rewarded with land and riches. He has found love, and lost it all too quickly. He has travelled from the southern kingdom of his homeland of Cantware (Kent) all the way into the northern realm of Dál Riata to the isle of Hii (Iona). Beobrand has witnessed the resurgence of the religion of the Christ, and he has even stood against the dark power of the old gods, wielded at the hands of a cunning woman seeking revenge against him.
It has been six years since the action in the previous book, Killer Of Kings, and eight years since Oswald took the throne, aided by Beobrand. Elevated by the king to thegn as reward for his fealty, Beobrand is now a wealthy warlord, with a sizable warband. But battle is once again brewing on the borders of Northumbria, Beobrand’s adopted kingdom. Penda of Mercia, the great killer of kings himself is planning to invade and Beobrand is called upon to stand in an epic battle where the blood of many will be shed in defence of the kingdom. Beobrand is once more at the forefront of the action, leading his men into a cataclysmic battle between the Christian Oswald and the pagan Penda.
You can buy Warrior of Woden on Amazon.